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The house of Cornelius Gurlitt in the Aigen district of Salzburg, Austria, where the German recluse stored part of his art collection. (Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

The 81-year old recluse German Cornelius Gurlitt, who hoarded modern European masterpieces in his Munich apartment for decades until the trove was discovered in 2012, died after a heart operation on Tuesday, the New York Times reports. Gurlitt inherited the art collection from his father, who was reportedly ordered by Hitler to acquire and sell the “degenerate art” in order to help finance Nazi activities. The collection has nearly 2,000 pieces, including works by Chagall and Matisse, and is worth an estimated $1.4 billion.

In February 2012, authorities found the trove while investigating Gurlitt for possible tax evasion. The German government has been in the process of returning the masterpieces to the heirs of their rightful owners, many of whom are Jewish families. Last month, Gurlitt’s lawyers reached an agreement with a team of international experts granting them the right to continue researching the provenance of the paintings.

Gurlitt’s death ends “both the court-ordered care as well as the investigation,” said Stephan Holzinger, Gurlitt’s spokesperson, referring to the tax evasion inquiry. In terms of a will stipulating what would happen to the collection the event of Gurlitt’s death, no document has yet been found.

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